Half Penny

                     Trying to Spend Money 
               the Way Taxpayers Wanted

By John Dorschner

      A county oversight board has taken a tentative but major move toward trying to get the half-penny sales tax for transit back for what it was intended to do -- pay for expanded rail lines and more buses.
Paul Schwiep
      The move is both "a major step" and "a first step," said Paul Schwiep, chair of the Citizens' Independent Transit Trust.
       The resolution, passed 12-4 on Wednesday, asks the county commission to approve a transition "within the next three to five years" to return the half-penny to its original mission. 
       Before the vote, Commissioner Xavier Suarez appeared before a CITT committee to note that the original resolution had insisted of limiting the transition to three years."I plead with you to go back to three years," Suarez told the CITT. "The county 
Xavier Suarez
commission needs to get that message."
       The background: In 2002, Miami-Dade voters overwhelmingly approved paying a half-penny more for sales tax after politicians promised the money could deliver a 90-mile expansion of Metrorail and a doubling of buses, from 800 to 1600.     Thirteen years later, the results: a 2.4 mile rail extension to the airport and a total of 815 buses. 
       One problem, the resolution noted: "Miami-Dade County experienced a severe financial crisis during the 2008 recession that required major reductions in county services including transit." 
     Schwiep says that, by an 8-7 vote, the CITT in 2008 allowed the half-penny to be used for ordinary operating and maintenance expenses of the transit system. Politicians kept talking about expanding rail -- such as the much-ballyhooed BayLink from downtown Miami to Miami Beach -- but they weren't putting any money toward it. 
     In fact, in recent years, even as the county's financial crisis eased, the pols kept relying more on the half-penny for basic operations. Since 2012, the county has received almost $300 million more in property taxes without raising the millage rate, Suarez says. That money could have helped pay transit's bills so that the half-penny could be used for future investments. 
Charles Scurr
     The opposite has happened. Charles Scurr, the trust's executive director, says the county has recently relied more on the half-penny for operational costs. Last fiscal year, the county took $95 million from the half-penny. This fiscal year, it's taking $128 million. That will drop next year to $113, and will descend to $28 million in 2020. Scurr said.

    In a CITT committee meeting Wednesday, Schweip admitted that the resolution had been "watered down" to stretch the time period to five years, but the county leaders "have come to depend the surtax" so that it's "kind of difficult to end it." 
     Alice Bravo, transit's new director, told the committee her department serves 250,000 bus riders a day, 75,000 on Metrorail and 33,000 on Metromover. Without the half-penny, "we wouldn't be able to provide that level of service." 
Alice Bravo

   Scurr said stretching the transition to five years  could be an advantage because ultimately the surtax would be funding less of operations than it would if  "unwinding the unification," as the 2008 deal was called, stopped after three years. The reason: the county would not insist that the half-penny pay all the operational costs for expanded services as is presently required.
    Several CITT members were not convinced by the need for a five-year time table.
    Anna Ward said flatly: "This money needs to come back to us. I ride transit. We shouldn't be footing this bill any further."
    Jonathan Martinez suggested that a soft approach with county leaders was not going to work. "If we don't put the pressure on them, it's not going to happen."

    Following up on a previous story, this reporter asked Transit Director Bravo if the department was doing anything to alleviate complaints that some routes had too few buses during rush hours, specifically the Route 120 Beach Max, where daily rider Derek Merleaux complains that sometimes three buses zoom past his stop because they're already full.
    Bravo said that the department had just received some new articulated buses -- large ones with an accordion-style center connecting the two halves. She said they were being put into service "even as we speak."
    Bravo said Wednesday she wasn't sure what routes the articulated buses would be used on. 

    On Thursday afternoon, transit spokeswoman Karla Damian, said that five articulated buses are already being used on Miami Beach on the S and 120 routes, depending on time of day and demand.
     "Within two or three months," she said from 10 to as many as 15 of the large new buses will be used on those two routes during rush hours, depending on needs and time of day.
     "This is excellent news for riders," Damian said. "We're so excited we can offer this."

1 comment:

  1. Interesting they claim to already be using articulated buses on that route. I have never seen one at morning or evening rush hour... Any way to independently verify?